ERNEST L. EATON ON THE DYKELANDS (November 29/02)

The late Ernest L. Eaton’s hobby was history, in particular, the history of the Acadian connection with the Canard dykelands of which he was a recognised authority. Mr. Eaton’s working career was spent with the Department of Agriculture; he also operated a century farm in Canard which was noted for displaying the jawbone of a whale on its premises.

One of Mr. Eaton’s sons, Roger, was a friend and when I visited him I usually discussed local history with Ernest. I discovered that Mr. Eaton knew a great deal about the dyeklands and the Acadians. He could tell you where many of the Canard homesteads of the Acadians were located, for example, and he was familiar with the earliest dykeing efforts on various streams that are feeders of the Canard River.

As well as a diligent researcher, Mr. Eaton was a published historical writer. The Nova Scotia Historical Quarterly carried many of his articles and he often penned features for local newspapers. However, much of the historical research conducted by Mr. Eaton was simply filed away. I recall a conversation in which Eaton mentioned plans to publish a book on his dyekland and Acadian research but this never came about.

I’ve often wondered what became of Mr. Eaton’s research papers. Recently one of Eaton’s daughters told me that on his demise, his research papers were bequeathed to his oldest son. Later the family put the papers in order and donated them to Acadia University. The Ernest L. Eaton papers now reside in the Kirkconnell Room at the University.

Recently while looking through files at Kings Courthouse Museum I came across a 1980 issue of the Nova Scotia Historical Quarterly; in the issue is an article on the Canard dykes by Mr. Eaton. It was a revelation to read this article; as well as discussing the earliest dykeing attempts on Canard River tributaries, Eaton explained in detail how the dykes and aboiteaux were constructed by the Acadians. “It was an interesting process,” Eaton wrote of the dykes, which while “demanding much patience and skill, were extremely simple and practical.”

From the Acadians, Mr. Eaton moves on to the dykeing effort of the Planters, or as he calls it, the “early English dykes.” There are some interesting insights into the building of the great Wellington Dyke. “Tradition says that of every ten loads of material (used in building the Wellington Dyke) nine washed out,” Eaton wrote, for example.

One of the most interesting aspects of Mr. Eaton’s article is his description of how the dykelands were divided up by the Planters and maintained over the centuries by their progeny. On the Wellington marsh, for example, are a number of common fields, each a separate entity. “They carry such names as Long Dyke, Union Dyke, Middle Dyke, Kempt Dyke, Bowen Dyke” which are divided into lots with vague boundaries.

In 1893 a committee of three men appraised the Wellington Dyke marshlands and rated the various dyke lots; the best lot was given a rating of 100 percent and the remaining lots judged by this standard. The rating system was accepted for at least two centuries as a basis for tax assessment by the municipality and the province. This method of internal taxation is a unique feature of the Wellington Dyke, Eaton said.

The Canard dykes have their own peculiar language. Eaton writes of “turning on day,” when cattle were branded and turned loose on the dykes, as being a big event amongst dykeland lot holders. Eaton said that dyke lots were assessed on the amount of cattle feed each contained. This assessment “is given the name of ‘sizing’ and is measured in ‘cows’ and quarterly fractions of cows.”

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